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Enneagram Theory: The “State of the Art” of Enneagram Subtypes


The first of three guest blogs by Beatrice Chestnut, Ph.D.

What are the Enneagram subtypes?

When I set out to define the Enneagram subtypes, I like to start with my own personal experience with regard to the subtypes, because I think others may have had a similar experience. My experience also demonstrates some of the key problems with subtypes as they have been studied and taught up until now.

These problems with the subtypes also points to a problem within the larger Enneagram community; there is a lack of curiosity and open-mindedness with regard to actively working to improve subtype theory. This reflects the way in which Enneagram practitioners can get attached to particular “truths” about the system, either because it gives them expert status or it supports their livelihood. As a result, they keep teaching the same old material, even when it doesn’t make sense or proves inadequate or incomplete.

I initially learned the Enneagram in 1990 and for my first 14 years of knowing the system, I really didn’t understand subtypes at all.  The subtype descriptions seemed short and lacking; I couldn’t figure out what my subtype was from the available information, so I didn’t find the subtypes compelling at all.

This is in stark contrast to the experience I had (and I think many people have) when I first learned the nine Enneagram types and found my type.  From the beginning of my exposure to the nine types, I was amazed by how accurate they were and how thoroughly they described both myself and the people I knew.  Upon reading about my type, I could see how it fit what I knew about myself so well.

But until 2004, my experience of the subtypes was not in any way revelatory in the same way. If you look at the “major” books written about the Enneagram system, there really is nowhere near the amount of material about the subtypes that exists regarding the types. The most prominent Enneagram type-descriptor books have either nothing about the subtypes, or very little, maybe a paragraph or two.  Why is this? Maybe it’s because there just isn’t as much information out there about the subtypes. But if that’s true, why do so many people teach whole workshops focused on the subtypes? Why do people just teach it as is, without trying to expand it based on real experience – not speculation – and make it better? You would think that if there was enough information for a few hundred subtype workshops, there would be something written about it in the major books.  In addition, there would be a better understanding of what they are and why they are important.

So, my first point is that there is not a lot of solid, tested, reliable information about the subtypes out there, especially because most of what’s being taught is based on the pre-2004 level of information about the subtypes, which amounts to not very much information at all. If I couldn’t find my subtype, how many others can’t find theirs or have identified the wrong one?

My whole experience of the subtypes changed in 2004, when I participated in Claudio Naranjo’s subtype presentation at the IEA conference.  Over three mornings, Naranjo gave a lot of new information that he had developed over many years about the subtypes and did so in front of an audience of more than 300 people. For me, this was a very significant turning point in my understanding of subtype theory. I found my subtype, which proved to be revolutionary in increasing my knowledge about myself. I learned that there was much more to the 27 subtype characters than I had ever heard before, including the existence of “countertypes” and specific relationships among the three different subtypes for each type.

But here’s the big mystery: despite the fact that there was a big audience for this major event in the history of subtypes, no one seemed to take this new information into their subtype teaching. So this is another point I want to make: we in the Enneagram community finally had access to a great deal of new subtype information, revealing new insights about the subtypes and much clearer character descriptions of the 27 types, yet no one really seemed to be listening. No one seemed to integrate this new data into their subtype knowledge. I couldn’t believe it. And this made me wonder if we get so comfortable with the usual texts and sources that we forget that our theoretical Enneagram knowledge is still a work in progress.

So, what I will present in the next two blogs about what I know about the subtypes – which I believe is the latest and best, most up-to-date information about the subtypes that almost nobody seems to be paying attention to – is based on what Naranjo presented in 2004.  Finally hearing something that made sense about the subtypes – and in particular my own subtype – was such a relief to me. I had many new insights that really helped me break new ground in my understanding of myself.  This new information also motivated me to start developing and teaching this new bit of subtype knowledge – especially since no one else seemed to be talking about it.  If I found the subtypes unclear before 2004, maybe others did too, and maybe these others, like me, were fearful of making this truth known, as it might seem disloyal to one’s teacher.  That said, I think it is vitally important to introduce the idea that maybe our pre-2004 grasp of subtypes leaves a lot to be desired – so this is the “state of the state” of subtype knowledge as I see it. I think it’s wise to look at this as evolving theory – what we think so far – and dedicate ourselves to continuing to develop this theory, so that we can be using and teaching the best theory available to us.

Before I offer brief descriptions of the 27 subtype characters as Naranjo communicated them in 2004 (in blog 2 of this series), I thought it might be a good idea to recap what we know about what a subtype is and how it operates within the personality structure. There isn’t a lot of printed information about what, exactly, a subtype is and how it translates into observable behavior. But what information there is, I believe, comes from Naranjo’s books on the Enneagram.

In introducing the theory of personality behind the Enneagram in the introductory chapter of his 1990 book, Enneatype Structures: Self-Analysis for the Seeker, Naranjo devotes a page and a half, plus an illustrative figure, to defining the nature of subtypes. I may not have a thorough enough grasp of all the Enneagram literature, but to the best of my knowledge, this is the only place where we find a written description of what the subtype is, how it operates, and how it fits together with the larger Enneagram view of the structure of the personality.

To summarize and paraphrase what Naranjo says in these paragraphs, he explains that, according to the Protoanalytic theory of personality [Ichazo’s Enneagram map], the personality is composed of three elements: 1) a cognitive faculty, 2) an emotional or passionate faculty, and 3) an instinctual level that encompasses and reflects the pervasiveness of three goals of human instinctual behavior – survival (the self-preservation instinct), relationships (the social instinct), and pleasure (the sexual or one-to-one instinct).

Naranjo explains that individuals usually experience an imbalance with regard to their dominant instinct, as the passion manifests through one more than the other two, and part of the work is in the correction of this imbalance. This imbalance is the result of “an invasion of the instinctual sphere by an egoist factor…a displacement of a passion from the lower emotional center to one of the instinctual sub-centers” (Naranjo, 1990, p. 3).  This causes a condition in which a person’s instinct is “bound” by the ego or the fixated personality in the form of the mental fixation and the associated passion. As a result, the person is not free to act on free-flowing instinctual impulses, but those instincts – which Naranjo explicitly describes as healthy when “free” – are now bound up with and interfered with by the passion and the supporting cognitive fixation.

So, this is what the subtype is within Naranjo’s theoretical description of the personality. Health, or the optimal state, is characterized by “unobstructed instinctual self-regulation,” but when the fixated personality holds sway, instinct is curtailed as it is put in service of the passion as part of the functioning of the fixated personality.  And as many people who teach the subtypes today do point out, subtype, or instinct-bound-by-passion behavior, represents the person’s most automatic or most unconscious behavior. Subtype expresses a compulsion – or as Naranjo puts it, a neurotic need – which is an insatiable need that drives behavior forcefully at the instinctual level.

But, how do the subtypes manifest in terms of personality descriptions? How are they characterized? As I said, before I heard Naranjo’s 2004 presentation of all 27 subtypes, I couldn’t find very much information about the 27 characters, and I couldn’t find my subtype within the type Two descriptions.

However, learning the longer, more complete version of the subtypes from Naranjo in 2004 gave me a much more comprehensible, more thorough sense of the 27 subtypes. Within this schema, I found my own subtype, and with the help of some of Naranjo’s assistants I learned a great deal of new information about myself.  I found what he presented to be far more coherent, systematic, and insightful than any account of the subtypes I had ever heard or read before this time. Also, I clarified some crucial aspects of my personality that I had never seen clearly before hearing Naranjo talk about my subtype, self-preservation Two.

One of the interesting features of this description of the subtypes is that for each of the nine types, one of the three subtypes is what Naranjo calls the “countertype,” a subtype that “goes against” the prominent energetic flow of the passion (while the other two go with it more). Naranjo described the countertype as “being upside-down,” with respect to the usual understanding of the type and the passion.  This is another useful concept that I believe shows the more complete nature of Naranjo’s 2004 articulation that has been so far neglected by the larger Enneagram community. Countertypes can look different than the other two subtypes and can often be mistaken for other types (which may be a major source of mistyping).

In my next guest blog in this series, I will describe all 27 subtypes as Naranjo articulated them in his 2004 IEA workshop in Washington DC. In the last of this three-part series I will discuss why I believe subtype theory is important and what happens to our subtype teaching when we don’t have this cutting-edge information.

Beatrice Chestnut has been studying the Enneagram system for over 20 years. She holds graduate degrees in Communication and Clinical Psychology, has a private psychotherapy and coaching practice in San Francisco, California, and is currently writing a book on the Enneagram types and subtypes. She can be reached at bchestnut2@sbcglobal.net.

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